Evaluation of the third 21st Century Panglong Conference: More informal engagement than official meetings?

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Sai Wansai

 

The much awaited third 21st Century Panglong, officially known as Union Peace Conference – 21st Century Panglong (UPC – 21CP) was held in Nay Pyi Taw from July 11 to 16. Actually, the first UPC, without the suffix 21CP, was conducted by the Thein Sein regime in January 2016. But when the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took over in March 2016, the renamed UPC-21CP was held in August 2016 and again in May 2017 and this is the third peace conference gathering under the NLD regime.

The opening ceremony of the UPC was held at MICC-2 in Nay Pyi Taw at 10 am  on July 11, with over 1,500 people including the President, ministers, leaders of ethnic armed organizations, foreign diplomats and personnel from the United Nations, delegates from China and Japan, representatives of the government, Hluttaw, the Tatmadaw, ethnic armed organizations, and political parties, experts, appropriate individuals that ought to be invited, ethnic representatives, and civil society organizations attended the ceremony.

 

The country has been embroiled in armed ethnic conflict in ethnic states like Kachin and Shan, including to a lesser extent in Karen, Chin and Arakan (Rakhine) States, since the beginning of the year. But largely died down in Kachin State and northern Shan State, with the exception of clashes in Mong Kung, central Shan State between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Tatmadaw, making some 1000 fleeing their home, a dozen or so Tatmadaw’s troops killed in actions and one from the RCSS with many wounded.

 

The Federal Political Negotiation Consultative Committee’s (FPNCC) members were all invited by the government through the good office of Chinese embassy in Myanmar; so do the Karenni People Progressive Party (KNPP) and National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Kaplang (NSCN-K), making the gathering the most all-inclusive for the first time that the Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) were attending the UPC. Although the FPNCC aim was more at establishing a regular line of contact for further negotiation, on a different track, and not participating in the UPC various discussions.

 

Against this backdrop, Union Peace Dialogue Joint Committee (UPDJC) the highest organ in giving direction to the political discussion for the UPC could only agree on 14 discussion points out of 32 proposals from the Working Committee (Secretariat) five sectors – politics, social, economy, security, land and natural environment.

 

Aung San Suu Kyi

 

Suu Kyi’s opening speech main drive is soliciting the non-signatory EAOs to enter the peace process fray. She said. “Our people had waited more than seventy years to go about freely in our regions, earn a livelihood and select economic and regional development opportunities on their own. They don’t want to wait any longer.

 

In praise of the NCA’s achievement, which has been started by the Thein Sein regime and adopted by her NLD-led government, she said : “It is the main gate for the political discussions that are being widely held nowadays. Innocent ethnic nationals and people who lived in the conflict areas are starting to taste increasingly the fruit of stability and security that were created by NCA.

 

NCA is a hard to attain merging equilibrium point, where different forces come together. It is an agreement that is recognized internationally as well as in the country,” she stressed.

 

She further emphasized: “At the moment, the peace process started by NCA had reduced armed engagements, and we could see with our own eyes that, in addition to political discussions that were never held throughout our history, we had progressed to a stage where political agreements were being signed as part of a Union agreement.

 

On the importance and achievement of the NCA she directed her message to all the groups who were there as: “NCA is a merging equilibrium point where different forces come together as well as being a starting point in our march toward our ultimate destination. We are not halting or stopping at NCA. While conducting political discussion that came about from NCA, we took the first step of signing part 1 of the Union agreement at the second session of the 21st Century Panglong. We will discuss and negotiate to sign part 2 of the Union agreement on the final day of the third session of the conference.

 

She added: “ Our aim is to establish a democratic federal union. Peace conference is a political round-table discussion where important basic principles of democracy and federalism will be established.

 

Regarding the right peace solution platform she pointed out: “Throughout the years, ethnic armed organizations had demanded to resolve political problems through political discussions. The main sources of armed conflicts were the inability to resolve the political problems. Today, in our 21st Century Panglong Conference, we will attempt to solve the source of the armed conflicts through dialogue.”

 

“To cease armed conflicts, it is very important to achieve political agreements that are acceptable to different forces. The National League for Democracy, that is serving as a government in accordance with the wishes of the people, firmly believed and held onto this belief since it became a party that political problems can be resolved only when a democratic federal union is established. Ethnic armed organizations also had consistently spoken of the requirement to establish a federal system for conflicts to end,” she buttressed the core aspirations of all stakeholders.

 

Then she urged : “ At this stage, groups that are not participating in the political discussions can start by participating at the existing situation. I earnestly urge all to work together with us in this.

 

Concerning the tasks that needed to be tackled she said: “In implementing ‘federal’, the main principles of non-secession from the Union and self-determination need to be negotiated, as these are very delicate matters. Although this matter is not included in this conference, it is beyond doubt that all need to notice this.”

 

She said that there are two parts in implementing the NCA — strengthening ceasefire work process and successfully holding political discussion work process.

 

On development she stated: “Our government will increase the momentum of conducting Public-Private Partnership (PPP) work processes for regional development and improving socio-economic situation of the ethnic nationals and the people in the conflict region.

She also cautioned, possibly aiming at the Tatmadaw: “Peace is achieved not through pressure but only through understanding and trust.

 

As for the long term aim she told the gathering: “In 2018, we will hold another conference. Two more will be held in 2019. Before 2020, there’ll be three more conferences. In these three conferences, it is aimed to finalize basic principles of democracy and federal system and lay a firm foundation for a future democratic federal union.

 

Min Aung Hlaing

 

Looking at the opening speeches of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, they are almost identical in urging the remaining non-signatory EAOs to sign the NCA and enter the UPC fold.

 

Min Aung Hlaing rejected the reasons for not inking the NCA, due to the fact that some, like the Wa, Mongla and Naga EAOs, have already sign either the state or union-level ceasefire agreements and not recently been actively engaged in conflict.

 

He said: “To those who are saying they have already made agreements in the past and that there is no need to do so again, this may go against the current democratic ethics,” pinning his argument in his speech on the NCA ratification by the Parliament democratically, without rejection, in December 2015, during Thein Sein’s government tenure.

 

He explicitly stressed: “That’s why all the EAOs have to sign the NCA”.

 

Furthermore the Min Aung Hlaing added, “The NCA is only in name a ceasefire agreement. But in  essence much broader and more comprehensive. Even the agreed, first fundamental principle point of the NCA is to build a democratic federalism-based union, not only demanded by ethnic armed groups but also by other ethnic organizations.”

 

He went on to explain his Myanmar’s historical background as being a political entity which has existed since time immemorial within the context of Burmese empire, rejecting the ethnic nationalities’ notion that the new political entity “Union of Burma/Myanmar” came into being because of the 1947 Panglong Agreement, which is celebrated as the“Union Day” to mark the treaty signed on 12 February 1947.

 

He also rejected the accusation that the Tatmadaw is the source of internal conflict, saying: “Tatmadaw’s actions are just to protect the government’s administrative machinery, people’s lives, homes, riches and economic benefits.”

 

To drive home the message that the Tatmadaw is also doing what it can to amend the 2008 Constitution, he said: “We also know that there are desires for constitutional amendments in connection with peace talks. In 2015, 34 points of the Schedule Two under title of Region or State Legislative List of the 2008 Constitution and 20 points of the Schedule Five under the title of Taxes Collected by Region or State were mainly amended in the interests of national ethnic people, and the mandate of the region and state governments was expanded.”

 

He also made a blunt statement on what he thought of the Tatmadaw’s role in national political arena. He said: “EAOs from some areas don’t represent the 52 million people, so do political parties only represent the people who voted for them. (But) our Tatmadaw is born out of the indigenous (Taingyinthar) people and thus is the organization that has to represent the people.”

 

He reiterated that there is no country with more than one national armed force, undercutting the demand of the EAOs to reform the Tatmadaw to become federal army. He also blamed the non-signatory EAOs for refusing to sign the NCA.

 

Union Accord

The 2nd UPC-21CP in May 2017 was able to agree upon 37 guiding principles and the recent 3rd  UPC-21CP on 14 points.

 

It was agreed that the discussion points which included 4 in politics, 1 in economy, 2 in land and environment, and 7 in social sectors to be included in the 2nd part of the Union Accord, as a guiding principle for the establishment of the federal union, by all groups from the government, parliament, Tatmadaw, EAOs and political parties.

 

The closing ceremony was conducted by the Conference Convening Committee headed by Padoe Kwe Htoo Win on Monday July 16, at 10 am, MICC-2.

 

Following the adoption of the 14 discussion points, State Counselor gave a closing speech, where she said that although only minimum discussion points could be endorsed this time around, it is a testimony that the peace process is moving forward, despite many difficulties. The fact that the FPNCC attended the UPC opening for further collaboration in the peace process is a plus point. In trying to achieve peace, security sector agreement is vital and that all stakeholders should amend the political framework to be able to find common solution in resolving the problem. She pointed out building trust and agreeing upon common goals are necessities to achieve peace and reconciliation..

 

Informal meetings

 

The FPNCC that flew in from China made the most headlines as eyes were fixed on this Northern  Alliance, which is made up of the most EAOs’ fighting troops, estimated to field about 80% from the 100,000 or so for the whole EAO armies combined.

 

The FPNCC met the Commander-in-Chief and State Counselor, but in two separate groups. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) or Mongla and Shan State Progress Army (SSPP) met the Commander-in-Chief and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) or Kokang, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Arakan Army (AA) met the deputy Commander-in-Chief. The same procedure was repeated also when meeting the State Counselor, except the UWSA was absent, due to its two leaders sudden illness and had to be hospitalized until they left on July 14 for China.

 

The FPNCC delivered its position paper stating that it be allowed to amend the NCA and also a guarantee that it could opt out of the NCA when it decides to do so. The government’s Peace Commission (PC) and the FPNCC agreed to follow up with continued communication in the future.

 

KNPP and NSCN-K participated in the UPDJC approved discussion topics during the UPC-21CP, while KNPP also continue to discuss with the government’s PC on the possibility to sign the NCA.

 

Outlook

 

Looking at the whole UPC-21CP that started on the July 11 and ended after six days, the formal meeting seems to be less visible and important than the informal meetings that have taken place between the FPNCC and the Commander-in-Chief and the State Counselor.

 

The FPNCC was able to air its opinion which is the request for the amendment of the NCA, including its right to opt out of it when it decides to do so. The government in return also agreed to keep the communication line open for further discussion on peace process through its PC.

 

The Tatmadaw met all the FPNCC members, although separately in two groups. However, the pressure and demand that the TNLA, MNDAA and AA should give up armed struggle as a precondition still exist, according to the TNLA sources. But the fact that the Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win met them could be seen as improvement.

 

In general, the assumption that the Tatmadaw is the sole organization that is entitled to represent the people doesn’t go down well for the EAOs, political parties and the NLD-led government, as could be seen by the blunt rejection of one NLD top leaders, U Nyan Win, immediately after the Commander-in-Chief’s opening speech remark on the said issue.

 

In sum, the 10 NCA signatory EAOs and political parties were not enthusiastic after not being allowed to talk about ethnic rights and rights of self-determination and believe agreeing on discussion agendas and arguing upon words of choice in small detail could hinder the whole peace process, a prospect that has consistently dogged the whole process.

 

As for the FPNCC, whether being able to build a cordial, working relationship with both the government and the Tatmadaw, through the good office of China’s embassy in Myanmar, might propel the peace process into a more positive light by its prospective future participation, is for now anybody’s guess.

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